NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Native Americans Trading Wampum for Votes

October 3, 2003

After decades in which the federal government tried to erase Indian identity by forcibly assimilating Indians and terminating recognition of tribes -- efforts that continued up until the late 1950s -- many Indians championed separation as a means of self-preservation.

Participation in state and local politics ''was taboo,'' says Kurt Luger, president of the Great Plains Indian Gaming Association. ''Why would you want to mess around in a non-Indian election when we were supposed to be sovereign?''

Gambling changed the equation -- of approximately 335 tribes in the lower 48 states, 204 now have gambling businesses. For tribes located near major metropolitan areas, casinos are better than striking oil. As a result, the gambling money has given tribes both the means and the motivation to get involved in politics:

  • Since 1990, contributions by Native American gaming interests to federal candidates have jumped nearly 4,000-fold, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP).
  • At least two members of the U.S. Senate arguably owe their seats to Native Americans.
  • Native Americans have helped elect governors and U.S. House members and they are putting tribal members on school boards, county commissions and state legislatures as well.

There are risks in becoming politically active, however, says Robert Stern of the Center for Government Studies in Los Angeles. He thinks the eye-popping sums anted up by the tribes in the California recall campaign could cost them goodwill -- and a victory.

Indian contributions for rival candidates already have prompted a backlash from leading Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. He's vowing to make taxation of Indian casinos a top priority if elected.

Source: Kathy Kiely, "The newest kingmakers: Indian tribes They have what it takes: Cash, votes," USA Today, October 2, 2003.

For CRP data


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